i.c.stars; the future is bright in the Milky Way

i.c.stars is an immersive technology workforce training and placement program for promising young adults. i.c.stars opened their first office in Chicago in 1999, and opened an affiliate in Columbus, Ohio in 2016. In 2018, i.c.stars opened in Milwaukee after receiving a generous commitment from The Dohmen Company. The sponsorship gives i.c.stars the funding, staff, and location needed to train and put promising adults to work in business & technology roles within Milwaukee companies. Located in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, i.c.stars shares space with Dohmen’s healthcare technology company, Red Arrow Labs. Nationally, the organization has trained hundreds of people to date with a placement rate of 80% for industry-ready graduates.

Leia Ferrari

Leia Ferrari, talent placement manager at i.c.stars, started her career in tech at a coding boot camp in the Bay Area where she learned a lot about skills-based education and the experiential learning space. After working at the coding boot camp for a couple years, Ferrari moved back to Milwaukee in June 2017. She took some time off to travel, and just as she was debating between moving to Colorado, moving back to California, or staying in Wisconsin, the stars aligned and she joined the founding team for i.c.stars Milwaukee.

Ferrari’s passion is related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the professional workforce. Her goal is to make the professional workforce in Milwaukee more accurately represent the population here. She’s living her why by working with the people going through the program, and seeing their dedication and accomplishments. Ferrari is an intrapreneur within i.c.stars, working with interns to prepare them professionally, working with companies to hire graduates, running a staffing augmentation, and working with sponsors and partners.

Ferrari credits both her individual success and i.c.stars’ success to their village of supporters. They’ve been able to get this far through the support of individuals who have started to collaborate and form coalitions within their organizations, and help to break down the barriers for i.c.stars within those organizations. i.c.stars has formed a valuable partnership with Northwestern Mutual, they’ve become a hiring partner, which is the ultimate investment—giving someone a future in the the tech industry locally. 

“I would love to see more companies or organizations follow Northwestern Mutual’s lead and get involved with us. The reason that we have such a healthy relationship is because they have a level of sponsorship, where they give us employee time to mentor our interns. Those mentors, in turn, come to realize these people are so ready to work, and can see them working at their company, on their team,” said Ferrari.

Ferrari is incredibly proud of the program’s graduates. “They are everything in terms of why we’re doing what we’re doing. They are putting themselves through so much, and also putting themselves out there in terms of vulnerability and giving up a lot to be able to do our program,” she said. The program is 12 hours a day, five days a week for four months. The students have to be dedicated to the program, because it’s incredibly challenging to have another job at night, or on weekends, especially with homework. It takes a lot of sacrifice and commitment—they’re usually giving up sleep, or time with their family, so they have to rely on their own villages and support system.

“We know that they have so much potential, that they already have the talent, and the resilience and the capabilities, all that they’ve been lacking is the opportunity. So we’re putting this opportunity in front of them, they can make of it what they will, and when they decide to take it on and fulfill their potential, nothing makes me happier,” said Ferrari.

Ferrari is also incredibly proud of the i.c.stars team who teaches the students to code, teaches them about business, and how to conduct themselves in a professional workspace. 

“It’s a really beautiful cycle of we’re giving to you; you’re going to give back to other people. It’s a community. It’s a family.”

—Leia Ferrari, talent placement manager, i.c.stars

As of July 2019, 47 individuals have completed the i.c.stars program in Milwaukee, of which 43% are female, 57% are male, and 96% identify as people of color. There are typically 200+ inquiries, 100+ completed applications, and it all comes down to 20 individuals who are admitted per cycle. Once students are accepted into the program, there’s a team week where they focus on team building, self discovery exercises for them to better understand who they are, how they work in teams, how they lead management styles, and an emotional intelligence workshop. After team week, students get into coding and work with a client, which is a key differentiator of the program. During first three months of the program they work with a client to respond to an RFP. Each week, the coding instructor is teaching them the things that they are going to start building, giving the building blocks one row at a time to deliver an MVP at the end of the third month. 

“We really help them push past what they think they’re capable of doing. It’s nothing short of inspiring.”

—Leia Ferrari, talent placement manager, i.c.stars

Some of the organizations that have hired i.c.stars grads are Northwestern Mutual, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, Briggs & Stratton, Cargill, CBRE | ESI, Dohmen, von Briesen & Roper, Dental Associates, Footlocker, Kenall, Crescendo Collective, Cream City Coders, and SHARP Literacy. Graduates have gone into roles like Software Developer, QA Analyst, Application Developer, Service Desk Specialist, IT Specialist, Front End Developer, and Dev Ops Engineer to name a few. 

i.c.stars believes in the spirit of collaboration over competition to move the community forward. “The Tech Hub movement is a perfect example—seeing Northwestern Mutual and Aurora, who are both large employers in the Milwaukee Area, come together to partner on that. I personally hope to see other enterprise level companies do the same in the near future,” said Ferrari. She also believes that we need more voices in Milwaukee. “When I bring our interns from i.c. stars to an event with me, I still don’t see enough diversity in those rooms. That’s not the fault of diverse communities. That’s the work of majority communities, when it comes to inclusion, so actively inviting, engaging, and persisting to reach out to communities that they may not be familiar in order to ensure that all different kinds of voices are represented,” Ferrari said. Conversations are often centered on racial and gender issues, but we also need to include LGBTQIA, disability, and neurodiversity in the conversation. 

“It’s our duty to speak up when we see bias in action, to interrupt it.”

—Leia Ferrari, talent placement manager, i.c.stars

To learn more about applying for the program, or to become a sponsor, client, or volunteer, visit or connect with Leia Ferrari on LinkedIn.


Constellation Conversations: Connecting shining stars in the Milky Way

An interview with Tania Dsouza

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the amazingly talented, Tania Dsouza, Creative Technology Director/Entrepreneur in Residence at BVK. Dsouza holds a Master’s in Innovation from Cranfield, U.K., and a Master’s in Technology from Touro in New York. She is driven by purpose to help people, and solve problems through innovation and emerging technology.

Serene Mireles: Tell me about yourself. You have a long, impressive career history. How did you get started?

Tania Dsouza: I started out in the advertising space. I have a lot of brand experience. I worked with some big agencies in the beginning years of my life, from Ogilvy, Young & Rubicam, to MKTG in Dubai, India. Then I moved on from print and packaging design to experiential and media marketing in Dubai. I changed careers and I did my Master’s in innovation. I did a little bit of entrepreneurship, engineering, design history, business, and that’s where I kind of got into design, user experience, human centered design, human interaction, product innovation—everything innovation—UX innovation. Not UX just for web, but product.

Then I went into event design—events and experiences and festivals in India. I did an event like Coachella. I created the concept for the event. It was a lifestyle and social festival in India, so creating the intellectual property for the agency, curating it, designing the presentation, putting a business-product mindset to it as well. I created it like a brand, and then pitched that and marketed it to sponsors and brands.

I also saw that I had a gap with understanding technology, so I did a Master’s in Technology in New York. That’s where I learned web development, and I did back end development as well, so I know database management and SQL. I don’t actually code, but I studied it, so now I understand it.

At my company I’m an entrepreneur in residence. I develop products and intellectual properties for our clients. I’m also a designer, so I design the user experience, and I do a little bit of everything when we develop products. My main job is to support the creative. We do advertising campaigns. We come up with a platform, and then I support with experiential ideas wether it’s AR/VR or voice. How do you bring the idea to life through interactivity? I know a little about artificial intelligence, blockchain, personalization, any kind of new technology, emerging technology—that’s my job. I educate the agency on emerging technologies. It’s very difficult to teach somebody about new technology, but if I have an idea, and I can demo it, it’s so much easier for them to understand the tool, and then they can understand how to make it.

Sometimes you have to be bold and step out.

—Tania Dsouza

Mireles: What is your passion, and how do you live your Why?

Dsouza: I really love entrepreneurship. I love coming up with new ideas and solutions, and seeing the ideas come to life. I’m really passionate about innovation and solving problems, and I’m passionate about the people in Milwaukee. How do we solve the problem of segregation, what idea can I bring to the table, how can I help support or bridge some gaps? That’s where my heart is and my long-term goal.

I love expressing creativity through technology. That’s what I do in my job. Entrepreneurship comes naturally to me, and they encourage it at my job, so I really like that. I love coming up with ideas, and when someone else is like “we can use this,” and we can work together, and we can solve this problem—I love that—it makes me very happy. I feel very energized sharing ideas. I don’t have to get credit for it. I love collaborating and brainstorming!

My main strength is ideation, and the other is strategic thinking, so just being around people, and seeing solutions come off, like a very startup mindset. How do you cut through the clutter of traditional thinking and bring new, fresh thinking? Like, why do we have to do it that way? I like to look to other industries, look at user behavior, understand how people behave in a specific area, and bring that same behavior into different products. How do people behave, and how can we build the technology to match people’s behavior?

It’s easier to work this way instead of copying how it’s always been done, then we’ll never have change. Sometimes you have to be bold and step out.

I don’t pursue success, I pursue purpose. How can I add value to the people around me? How do I impact the people around me?

—Tania Dsouza

Mireles: What has helped you achieve success?

Dsouza: That’s a really simple answer. It’s personal, but I just think my faith in God. Im a Christian, I love Jesus. He’s been the one that has brought me through everything, and I learn, and I grow. I feel like it’s how you look at things. There’s going to be good that comes out of everything. That mindset helps you to not think about past, or anything that is wrong with your past—you can actually move forward. I feel like that’s something that I treasure, and I feel like I’ve grown in that.

I don’t pursue success, I pursue purpose. How can I add value to the people around me? How do I impact the people around me? If I can grow emotionally, and the people around me are thriving, then that’s good. I feel like that’s my purpose. That’s why I want to help the city of Milwaukee. What can I do to solve problems. I want to be an instrument wherever I can. I’m not really pursuing success. That’s how I walk. Even at my job, it’s never like “that’s not my job. I’m not going to do it.” Integrity and being ethical, I feel, contributes to the result—you are reaping what you are sowing, and good comes out of that. That’s how I pursue success.

I look for wise people and try to walk with them, so I can learn from them and grow.

—Tania Dsouza

Mireles: Have you had any mentors or a support system along the way?

Dsouza: I have mentors, and people that I look up to—like all the women in my life that I want to be like. I want to grow into a better mom, or a director, or a better colleague. I’m not perfect, I like reading my Bible, and I look for wise people and try to walk with them, so I can learn from them and grow.

Mireles: There are a lot of diversity gaps in tech in Milwaukee, and across the whole field. How do you think diversity betters the tech field?

Dsouza: I’ve traveled so much. I’ve worked with all nationalities. You realize that everyone is different from you, and everyone has their own opinions, and it’s okay. When you’re in a team, and it’s not a diverse team, you’re not used to having someone different, so there’s a barrier of not being able to connect with other people. It’s going to be difficult for you to connect with somebody if you’re not used to being around people who are different from you. There is a breakdown in that basic human connection. We’re not able to understand each other’s jokes, we’re not able to connect, we’re not able to laugh together. It’s really difficult to work together. There are so many barriers to share ideas. When you can experience diverse thinking, and diverse people—all nationalities, you get so used to being around one another that you don’t even notice that you’re different. When you have diverse perspectives, you have better ideas, you can all work better together, and it’s so much easier to get stuff done.

Mireles: You share a lot of the same goals as Jet Constellations and the Milky Way Tech Hub Initiative. We’re working to transform Milwaukee into a tech hub that represents the city’s diverse population. How do you think you can contribute to this initiative?

Dsouza: It’s so easy to connect people together who share a common interest. I love connecting people. I think that would be a really good way to get people together, unify people, and enjoy one another. How can we be more inclusive, how can we design for different people, how do we connect with people differently? I just want to help and solve wherever I can!